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Berkeley County population surge squeezes infrastructure

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Construction continues on the Nexton Parkway Interchange along Interstate 26 in Summerville. (Photo/Provided)

Berkeley County has changed from a mostly rural bedroom community into a growing region with new housing developments, growing congestion and international companies.

Tim Callanan, Berkeley County’s deputy supervisor of administration, said the county’s ongoing transformation is apparent, particularly compared with when he moved there 20 years ago.

Goose Creek capitalizing on population growth

In 2010, Goose Creek, with a population of 35,938, sat on the sidelines as Charleston, North Charleston, Summerville and Mount Pleasant all ranked among the top 10 S.C. cities by population.

Eight years later, though, the city has over 42,000 citizens and sits in the No. 8 spot, reigning as the second-fastest-growing municipality in the state, behind Mount Pleasant.

Matt Brady, the city’s first economic development director, said Goose Creek’s strategic goal is business development.

“We’re going to do everything we can to grow smartly and strategically and work with our citizens and private investment generally to do that,” he said.

Goose Creek issued more than 4,300 business licenses last year, and businesses in the city had over $700 million in gross taxable sales last year.

“That’s indicative of our growth,” Brady said. “Our population continues to increase, and we have a lot of people who are interested in us. We look to have some more private investments ... breaking ground this spring.”

One project Goose Creek is working on is reinvigorating the former Button Hall Avenue fire station that was left empty when the fire department moved to its new station on Brandywine Boulevard. Brady said the city sees the former fire station as a valuable piece of property for the community.

“The idea is not to sell this property to the highest bidder,” Brady said. “The idea is to sell this property to the firm or group or investor or company that can see this property in a light and they will create the best project that is most beneficial for the people of Goose Creek and our visitors.”

The city has had a request for proposals out for a few months and is looking for someone who will create a place for the community to gather, such as a restaurant or a retail store.

“People can go and see their neighbors and have a sort of an amenity-type space,” Brady said.

The fire station project is part of a larger vision held by Brady and other officials in Goose Creek to keep citizens’ dollars within city limits. Right now, Brady said, Goose Creek is suffering from approximately $243 million of leakage — people leaving the city to eat or go shopping — and the city wants to try to recapture some of that.

“We are blessed to be in the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester metro that has some of the best culinary opportunities of anywhere, so people are going to take advantage of those,” Brady said. “So that makes sense, but we also want to do what we can to make it attractive for those companies to locate in our city.”

Brady said his goal for the city — considering the flood of population growth in Berkeley County — is to make sure the area grows responsibly.

“The future is pretty bright for the city of Goose Creek,” Brady said. “So what our goal is — my goal, staff and council — is focused on acknowledging that the area is growing and to try to do our best to grow strategically based on real data ... and try to do what we can do to improve the lives of citizens of Goose Creek.”

— Patrick Hoff

Correction: The version of this report that ran in the March 5, 2018, print edition had an incorrect number of business licenses issued. That has been corrected above.

“It was not on the top of anyone’s radar then. ... It has been fascinating to see the changes,” he said. “I never thought we would be in the national spotlight like we are now.”

The arrival of Volvo Cars’ automotive plant has played a role in that, already impacting the surrounding rural communities ahead of production beginning later this year. The Volvo campus is poised to transform the region over the next several decades, employing 4,000 people and producing two vehicles by 2021.

If the effect of Volvo’s opening is similar to that of other S.C. manufacturers, like BMW Manufacturing Co. in the Upstate, the car campus will bring new residents, stores, housing and suppliers to the surrounding communities.

The overall growth of the Lowcountry has driven up Berkeley County’s population to more than 210,000 people in recent years.

Berkeley County ranked as the 17th fastest-growing county in the country, gaining more than 8,000 residents between mid-2015 and mid-2016, U.S. Census Bureau data show. This matches the growth of Charleston and Dorchester counties’ new residents combined.

And the county’s real estate continually attracts homebuyers to the area.

“We have continued to grow since the economic downturn, and now we have just exploded,” Berkeley Chamber of Commerce CEO Elaine Morgan said.

‘Lot busier

Jearlina Ravenell grew up in Pringletown, a small, rural community in Berkeley County. She said it was the kind of place where people knew one another and few cars passed through.

“We had to travel to Charleston to go to places or get what we needed from stores,” Ravenell said. “I dreamed as a kid about having an ice cream shop here.”

In 2014, she capitalized on that vision and opened Jearlina’s Ice Cream and Cafe. The shop, at 1107 Old Gilliard Road, is situated between Interstate 26 at exit 187 and the new Volvo Cars plant nearing completion down the road.

Ravenell said she has already seen some changes. Traffic has picked up on the roads and her lunch rush has never been busier. She said Volvo workers flood in each day for hamburgers, ice cream, hot dogs, salads and sandwiches.

She has hired two people since 2015, when work began on the Volvo site, for a total of five employees. She plans to hire up to four more people and expand her restaurant space to accommodate more customers.

“We’ve never had this much traffic. The area has definitely gotten a lot busier, but I think the plant will be good and help kids get jobs here,” she said, noting that the region needs a community center for residents, particularly children and teenagers.

‘So much more traffic’

Volvo is not the only driver of change in Berkeley County. Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson said the town’s more affordable housing options — particularly when compared with Charleston prices — entice new and longtime Lowcountry residents to move to the area.

Leaders said the growth brings in a bigger tax base to support city- and county-led initiatives, improvements and services. Johnson said the area’s growing popularity and customer base also attract retail stores, grocery chains and restaurants.

Callanan said the incoming businesses help to raise the standard of living in the county by creating jobs and boosting wages as companies compete for talent. He noted that industry also pays large property tax bills, helping fund county services and projects for residents.

The growth has brought added traffic, however. Morgan, who grew up in a rural area of the county, said she often hears from chamber members who are concerned with the growing congestion in the region. She said some residents are looking for work closer to their homes.

“When it gets painful to go to work and to drive, we really need to come up with a funded plan to address that,” she said, stressing that traffic control is a regional issue. “We have to address this because the problem is only going to get bigger.”

Several area leaders said existing roads need more capacity to handle the influx of residents and workers.

Johnson said this is especially true for people whose jobs are in Mount Pleasant, North Charleston and Charleston but who move to Berkeley County because the housing is more affordable.

“The main thing that I think all of us have been noticing is the fact that we have so much more traffic now along our main thoroughfares,” Johnson said. “Most folks are concerned about getting to work down I-26 or down (U.S. Highway) 78, but the traffic on Main Street is tremendous now.”

‘Catching up’

Numerous road projects are underway or in the planning stages. The new Nexton interchange project includes widening a section of Interstate 26 and building exit 197 to create a new entry to Summerville for residents to access the area. Work is expected to wrap up in the spring. 

Other plans in Summerville include extending Marymeade Drive, which will provide another access point to the BJ’s Wholesale Club shopping center.

Widening work is underway on Clements Ferry Road in Berkeley County. Officials said it should help alleviate congestion in the area. (Photo/Provided)

Johnson said he also wants to see work begin on the longtime plan to extend Berlin G. Myers Parkway, connecting the four-lane roadway to Bacons Bridge Road and S.C. 165 to U.S. Highway 17A, and to see work continue on the bus rapid transit plan that will connect Summerville to downtown Charleston.

Callanan, who previously served on Berkeley County Council, said the county has been working feverishly to keep pace with the increasing demands on its infrastructure and services. The county passed penny sales tax increases in 2008 and 2014 to fund road projects.

“When you have growth that is too fast, it becomes very difficult to keep up on infrastructure. ... We are moving as quickly as we can to relieve these situations,” Callanan said.

The county’s infrastructure priorities include completing the Nexton interchange; widening U.S. Highway 176, which roughly parallels the western edge of the county; and widening Clements Ferry Road at the southern end of the county.

Callanan said the county is “pumping hundreds of millions of dollars” into the Nexton ramp and planned 176 widening project to serve the Nexton, Cane Bay and Carnes Crossroads master-planned communities.

Phase I of the 176 plan includes widening it from two lanes to five for a 7-mile stretch running from U.S. Highway 17A to Jedburg Road and Cooper Store Road. Work has not started on this project, according to the Department of Transportation. The design and right-of-way acquisitions are funded, but construction is not.

The two-phase Clements Ferry Road project is funded and ongoing, with the second phase set to begin next year. The road widening is anticipated to alleviate ongoing congestion on the road; it is also expected to address future traffic issues as work begins on Cainhoy Plantation’s transformation into a large, mixed-use community, officials said.

Combined, those four residential communities — Nexton, Cane Bay, Carnes Crossroads and Cainhoy Plantation — will have around 40,000 residences, all relying on city and county roads and services.

Callanan said the county is working on residential needs beyond roadways, including investing in its fire protection, emergency medical services, 911 services and mosquito abatement. The county increased its EMS budget by 70% last year compared with the year prior.

“Every year you don’t keep up and you continue to grow, you dig yourself deeper into a hole,” Callanan said. “So, over the past three years, what we’ve been doing aggressively is catching up. ... Once you catch up, you’ve got to keep up.”

This story originally appeared in the March 5, 2018, print edition of the Charleston Regional Business Journal.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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